Obama halts new offshore drilling but defends plan

Coastal state Democrats call on the president to reconsider drilling strategy in light of Gulf Coast accident and oil spill.

President Obama Friday defended the need to expand offshore oil and gas exploration even as his administration ceased new drilling as a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is being investigated.

"Let me be clear: I continue to believe that domestic oil production is an important part of our overall strategy for energy security," Obama said Friday in a Rose Garden speech focused on the economy. "But I've always said it must be done responsibly for the safety of our workers and our environment. The local economies and livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast, as well as the ecology of the region, are at stake."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will report back in 30 days "on what, if any, additional precautions and technologies should be required to prevent accidents like this from happening again," Obama said. "And we're going to make sure that any leases going forward have those safeguards."

He also said all deepwater rigs and platforms are being inspected.

But Obama is likely to face stronger resistance from coastal-state Democrats. Four New Jersey Democrats today wrote him to ask that he reverse his decision to open up waters for drilling off the shores of much of the East Coast, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Alaskan Arctic region and coast, as well as his call for studies of the oil and natural gas potential in the coastal regions from Delaware to northern Florida.

"In the wake of the tragic accident, loss of life, and pollution in the Gulf of Mexico ... we are even more steadfastly opposed to any offshore drilling that could imperil the environment or economy of coastal New Jersey," said Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

Their letter followed an announcement Thursday by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that he will introduce a bill to block the administration from acting on its plans to expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling.

In a letter to Obama, Nelson asked the administration to "postpone indefinitely plans for expanded offshore drilling operations" and called for an "immediate halt to test wells and all other exploratory operations in coastal waters." Nelson said on CNN Friday morning that plans in any climate and energy bill this year to expand offshore drilling are "dead on arrival now."

Obama has dispatched Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House energy adviser Carol Browner and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco to the Gulf as reports suggest the spill may have reached land early Friday.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency in several counties Friday, joining Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who declared a state of emergency Thursday.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Friday morning no new drilling will occur while the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill is under investigation. But he also defended Obama's blueprint for offshore oil and natural gas exploration.

"All he has said is that he's not going to continue the moratorium on drilling, but ... no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here," Axelrod said on ABC's "Good Morning America."